Keith Findlay, 21st July 2010
From directing European flights to driving tractors on his Moray farm, the man who heads up Bristow Group’s European unit, Mike Imlach, 52, has managed to combine a jet-set life with rural roots.
He recently returned to the north-east – having grown up at Portsoy – to take on the task of managing the largest business division of Houston-based Bristow after more than two decades working overseas in the energy and aviation sectors.
Bristow is the North Sea’s biggest helicopter operator.
The Aberdeen-based European arm accounts for 39% of the group’s global business and last year had a turnover in excess of £294million.
Mr Imlach has been with Bristow since 2008, when he was appointed head of west African operations.
The posting to Lagos, Nigeria, saw him become mired in a bitter dispute with union leaders who disliked his managerial style, accused him of insensitivity and demanded his resignation.
He looks back on his time in Lagos with pride, however, having helped to increase Bristow’s market share in Nigeria by more than 20%.
Mr Imlach took the brunt of workers’ anger – and some scathing criticism – during this spell but he views the experience philosophically, pointing out that worker unrest is almost par for the course for foreign firms doing business in Nigeria.
Militant activity throughout the oil-producing delta region of Nigeria is commonplace and Mr Imlach and his team faced many threats.
A lot of time and resources were taken up in reviewing safety and adapting emergency procedures to make sure no one came to any harm.
There were tough decisions to be made to protect lives and sometimes a balance had to be struck, so as not to frighten anybody and make them feel less secure than they actually were.
Mr Imlach said: “Having someone accompanied by a bodyguard with an AK47 (assault rifle) might seem like a wise move, but it can actually have a detrimental effect in reassuring that person.”
Aberdeen is, thankfully, rather less dangerous, but Mr Imlach said safety was still his and Bristow’s top priority. He added: “We have a target-zero safety programme, which means no incidents or accidents to personnel or the environment.
“We fully believe we can attain this through safety initiatives being implemented for our own personnel and, equally importantly, for our clients and passengers.
“Consistently improving safety and service quality has to be at the forefront of our activity.”
Mr Imlach could easily have embarked on a traditional career in farming after leaving Banff Academy and completing a three-year course at the Scottish Agricultural College.
He started out on that path in his early working life, when he earned his living on a dairy farm at Udny, but a business-management postgraduate course following his agricultural studies had already broadened his horizons.
After two years on the farm, he took a job as a drilling engineer at offshore contractor Bawden – now Noble Drilling – and went offshore. His wife, Janice, worked for the same company as a catering manager.
Mr Imlach later joined energy service giant Baker Hughes, where he had a variety of senior management roles.
By the time he joined Bristow he had considerable international experience under his belt, having had spells working in Italy, Egypt, Algeria, and Nigeria.
Now navigating Bristow’s European business, he has ultimate responsibility for hundreds of workers and dozens of helicopters.
Bristow employs 480 people between Aberdeen and Scatsta out of a UK workforce of 775. The firm has 19 helicopters based in the Granite City and six in Shetland, carrying 6,000 passengers a week. The company operates 52 aircraft across its European business.
Bristow has invested heavily in training and safety initiatives to drive up standards both on the ground and in the air. Mr Imlach said: “We’re also working closely with our clients and partners to make flying by helicopter a more pleasurable experience from start to finish.”
The group is ploughing more than £6.5million into hi-tech flight simulators for its European base at Dyce. They will be used for training pilots for all the types of aircraft Bristow flies.
It aims to make them available to its international teams as well as other helicopter operators around the world. Global economic conditions have made life tough for much of the aviation sector in the past year or so, and Bristow has had to restructure its business accordingly.
Western and eastern hemisphere divisions have been replaced by a single centralised global organisation. Meanwhile, the firm’s supply-side business now has its headquarters in Aberdeen in addition to a satellite office in Houston.
The changes were prompted by a cost-cutting drive launched in March last year, leading to fears of nearly 100 job losses in Aberdeen. It was thought up to 30 pilots could go, with 50-60 workers on the ground leaving.
At the time, Bristow said it was responding to a decline in demand for its oil and gas helicopter services; primarily in the exploration and development sector.
The job cutting, which coincided with blows for the industry from fatal helicopter accidents in the North Sea and Canada, turned out to be far less severe than had been feared.
It resulted in the loss of 20 jobs in Aberdeen, including 10 compulsory redundancies. There are no plans for further cuts to Bristow’s north-east workforce.
The company now sees prospects in the North Sea as more promising after a string of recent contract successes.
Mr Imlach said: “The helicopter industry has faced a challenging time.
“The tragic incidents – both in the North Sea and Canada – shook the sector and the global recession has also seen contracts being reviewed.
“We’re now seeing confidence return to the sector and there are signs of a recovery in the North Sea oil and gas industry, however, we’re not going to be complacent.”
Bristow secured a long-term contract recently with an oil major and expects to announce further new wins in the coming months.
The company is working closely with North Sea players to identify ways it can adapt its service to suit their needs.
Despite spending most of his working life abroad, Mr Imlach – father to Lisa, Leanne and Murray – has never forgotten his roots and runs a barley farm near Cullen with his wife.
He said: “I guess the love of working the land has never left me. We bought the farm when we lived in Egypt as a place to come back to and relax. It’s great now to be able to spend more time there.”